A guest post by Laurie Steed
Once, I was a short story writer.
I know this because I was respected amongst my peers but not at all popular. When people would meet me, they’d say, ‘Ah, Steed…like The Avengers,’ which is a show created more than 50 years ago.
When it came time to write my fifth full-length manuscript (the first four were some sort of extended training exercise), I was hesitant to write another traditional novel. I had written four, alongside hundreds of short stories, and the numbers didn’t lie:
- Roughly twenty percent of my short stories, or fifty-percent of my extensively drafted stories, had been published
- Slightly fewer of my traditional novels had made it past bunging up my sink, or being used to mop-up spilled ginger beer. And, when I say, ‘slightly fewer,’ I mean zero.
With this in mind, it seemed logical I’d next write a story collection, and I did, and for a while, all was well. Except I’ve never been one for stasis, or been all that logical . . . at least not when it comes to my writing.
In writing this post, I aim to explore not only how my book, You Belong Here, became a novel, but why, when it had previously been a competent, composed, and suitably refined short story collection.
A Family Affair
You Belong Here is a book about a family. In my original collection, I tried to side-step this by dedicating a section to each family member; this alienated each character enough to provide the necessary array of perspectives, but left little connectivity. A family does not confine its members to their own room. One might come out, make a sandwich, and leave their sister with those butt-ends of bread, great for soup but little else. A mother and a son might joke in the living room, a daughter might break plates in the backyard, and a Dad may pretend to be tinkering when really he’s just pissing about in the back shed.
The thread here is connectivity . . . and that’s why, perhaps, so many family sagas have been written as novels. Which is great . . . except I’ve never really ‘got’ novels despite my previous experience in writing them, and so pulled apart five narrative threads, before eventually having to tie them all back together, both meaningfully and effectively.
Life, or something like it
I have a photographic memory. It is, to varying degrees:
- Useless (I know that Jaleel White played Steve Urkel on Family Matters, that Kajagoogoo sang ‘Too Shy’, and can recite every phrase, as uttered by the original Speak & Spell.)
- Frightening (try telling someone you see as an adult with their young son that they once wore a green jacket in year nine and see how quickly they move to the next playground)
- Helpful as a writer, because you mostly write in all five senses, such are the strength and vividness of your memories.
This odd, almost super-power is important as it’s the only way to explain the way I write, i.e. in fragments that in time unveil a greater narrative thread. It matters because I was
a) destined to write primarily in short stories, as I see the world in such moments but
b) would also need, at some point, to draw threads together in the search for connectivity and interactivity between the hundreds of short stories I’d written and redrafted since beginning my writing career in 2002.
Many creatives are either explicitly or implicitly intrigued by control, be that in relationships or creative pursuits. The creative wants to work unencumbered but they’re also aware that for their work to be digestible, they’ll need to reign in their impulses. There are exceptions, of course, but even the most extreme experimental fiction experiments more with language than with story itself. Queneau’s Exercises in Style is a story told in 99 ways, but still examines a typical story, with a beginning, middle and end. George Perec’s A Void is entirely devoid of the letter ‘e’ but helpfully includes the other twenty-five letters.
I took a slightly different approach in my work, in that short stories are my control. I had not realised how much I enjoyed the relative safety of writing a single story in isolation. Of releasing these tiny birds, and watching their flight, with their journey untouched (for the most part) by the greater book industry.
I knew I would have to collate those visions at some point. I fought that for a long time, however, and indeed my previously unpublished novels include three of a family written in the form of a traditional novel, and countless short stories exploring family territory from various angles.
You Belong Here arose, I think, because I needed to clear out space: to take my love of short fiction and my need for risk to meet head-on and create something new: a novel, in the broader sense, but one that avoided sticking slavishly to a single protagonist, or consistent prose style.
Was it Difficult?
Difficult is a loaded word as it implies unwanted challenge, but it was painstaking and meticulous, my idea extended like a child’s steel spring, stretched out across the entirety of a staircase. It was immersive too; at times my wife would watch me watching nothing, cogs spinning in my mind, in search of the next leap forward.
I’d encourage any writer to take a similar path, for it’s impossible to ‘un-see’ the nature of story once it has revealed itself. It’s hard not to change when wrangling with a single manuscript for eight years; it’s near impossible to stay fixed as an artist when presenting your work first as one type of machine, and then re-engineering it for a different, but related purpose.
Despite the energy I exerted on the work for near-on eight years (and the subsequent exhaustion that followed its completion), it never once felt wrong, or inconvenient, more the natural progression of a narrative. I know this as truth because during my revision I was offered the chance to pare down the book to a single protagonist, and told that it would be more marketable, and more accessible.
That might have been the case. But then it wouldn’t have been my book or a book that was worth such rigour, that devotion towards breaking things open, as opposed to paring them down.
My journey, the adaptation of a multi-character POV collection into a novel that honours each family member, is not for everyone. I certainly don’t berate any author who finds comfort in finding a simpler form and then sticking with it.
I am not that author. My list of inspirations fills the page with things done differently: the monochrome canvases of Yves Klein and the films of Shane Carruth through to Tim O’Brien’s incredible The Things They Carried and Australian authors Ryan O’Neill and Julie Koh, who take things, stories, and societies apart, to see what makes them tick.
Like them, I wanted to engage and interact with the form. While my subject matter’s typical (do we really need another book about families?), my aim was for a different, more relevant approach for readers fuelled more by mixtapes and editing suites than by traditional narrative arcs. I wanted to tell a story covered not with dust and tradition, but by my fingerprints, albeit those gently guided by those artists who’d felt similarly inclined.
I write not to show but to know, or at least, to appreciate a greater complexity of thought and feeling than previously. And yet, one only gets such complexity by being humble, vulnerable and hungry.
Because those authors that wish to resonate, those striving for the sublime, are readers too, forever in search of life, or something like it.
Laurie Steed is a writer and editor from Perth, Western Australia. His fiction has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and has been published in Best Australian Stories, Award Winning Australian Writing, The Review of Australian Fiction, The Age, Meanjin, Westerly, Island, Kill Your Darlings, The Sleepers Almanac, and elsewhere. His debut novel, You Belong Here, is published by Margaret River Press. You can connect with him on Facebook and Twitter, or find out more at his website, lauriesteed.com.
Read Laurie’s Dos and Don’ts Workshop Etiquette